We may all be currently talking about Boyhood and Richard Linklater’s immense success in bottling time, but it was Before Sunrise that truly captured the essence of stolen moments. When Before Sunrise was released twenty years ago, we didn’t know that there would be two sequels chronicling Jesse and Celine’s time together, and we didn’t know that Linklater would be making a film that spanned 12 years in a record breaking film shoot. All we knew was what we had: a small (not slight) and significant look at the bond of two souls as they travel through Europe by train and just so happen to catch one another’s eye.
The premise is simple: the film follows Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American man, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a young French woman. The two meet on a train and disembark together in Vienna – a spur of the moment act of adventure. From that first step off the train until the sun comes up the next day and they trade their non-goodbyes, the two spend the night walking around the city getting to know one another. It’s a utilization of minimalism that works wonders for the soulful portrayal of the two leads and the tender and wholly felt romance they spark up. Written by Linklater and Kim Krizan, the film offers up poetic beats, allowing the ebb and flow of conversation to start and end naturally with Celine and Jesse either trying to escape the pause in the conversation or meditating in it, simply enjoying the other’s presence.
An array of topics are discussed from literature, to the afterlife and fear of death, to lost love and bad boyfriends, existential crisis and departure. Never seeming compulsory or unnecessary, these topics instead allow for the audience to get to know these characters on a personal basis at an accelerated pace. Celine and Jesse are tangible characters in their very first outing together. Jesse may lean to the pretentious side of things and Celine is belligerent and angry, but they’re complex and they complement one another. Celine is attracted to Jesse’s earnest nature and he’s attracted to her passion. They’re kindred, creatively inclined individuals who just so happen to come across one another when they are both far from home. It’s as much a love story for the ages as it is an emotionally taut character study, filmed by Linklater who so very clearly adores these two characters.
There’s a vulnerable undercurrent beneath this film, one that beats and throbs with the stolen looks, brief touches and romantic, under the star kisses. It’s a masterclass showcase for the romance genre.
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are both tremendous, striking an affable and electric chemistry from the start so that you feel his eyes peering into her the same moment as she. Their rapport is effortless and their affection and attraction for one another palpable. They make a beautiful onscreen duo both aesthetically and how they’re written with such immediate subtlety and grace. We watch and we understand why they would fall for one another.
The film is directed with a keen eye for natural beauty, and the Vienna countryside is captured elegantly without seeming superfluous, inducting cultural setting into the film without turning the romantic nature of the setting into a cliché. It makes you want to fall in love; it makes you want to find your own Jesse or Celine. I adore these characters. From their first youthful introduction, to their ambiguous ending in Before Sunset, to their tumultuous disarray of emotions in Before Midnight, these characters, their essence and the basic fabric of their beings, attract me, entrance me even, because they play out like real people on a larger than life scale. So much of this is due to the life that Hawke and Delpy pour into them. Every time one of Jesse and Celine’s stories end I’m saddened at the prospect of having to say goodbye again.
Before Sunrise manages to capture not one, but two iconic scenes in a film that is definitive of its genre. One is where Jesse and Celine sit down at a restaurant and make fake phone calls to friends back home where they describe one another to this imaginary voice at the end of their imaginary phones. They talk about connections; she talks of his pushed back hair as he smiles in a mix of giddiness and embarrassment. It’s a playful, flirtatious scene that gives us a greater look at the couple’s connection.
The next is when they stand in a record store, listening to Kath Bloom’s “Come Here” and steal peeks at one another, always looking away when catching the other’s eye. It’s a weightless connection they’ve formed, hardly knowing one another yet wanting to know so much more, and all they want to do in this moment is get a chance to see one another as the song plays on. It’s maybe one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen on film.
This doesn’t touch on the scene where the two dance in the silent street, where they have a poem written for them in the dead of night, when they share their first kiss or say goodbye and promise to meet in a year. This film is brimming with these significant and touching moments that make you remember why you love romance in film. There is no cynicism in Before Sunrise, no affected look at young love and the fruitless nature of such a brief meeting. Every emotion felt by the characters is drawn with absolute sincerity and such affection for the characters that you never doubt their motives or emotions.
It’s a love story written with care and shot by a director who enjoys watching his story and his characters come alive before him, and I doubt there will be many films like this again.